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For Love of the Game

MIT has one of the country’s largest intercollegiate athletics programs, and its athletes are as competitive on the field as in the classroom.

By all accounts, Caroline Tien ‘04, captain of the women’s tennis team, had a successful fall season. She won the New England Women’s Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament, and her team finished the season with a winning 6-4 record. Still, she says, she wonders how much more successful her sports career would have been had she gone to a more tennis-oriented school. As a member of an MIT team, she says, she always has classwork in the back of her mind. “It’s hard, sometimes, to keep your mind on the match when you know you have three problem sets due the next day.” But, Tien says, she didn’t come to MIT to play tennis; she came to study architecture. Playing tennis was just one of the many rigorous pursuits she took part in at MIT-only this one provided a much needed break from the challenges of schoolwork.

MIT recognizes that more and more students share Tien’s sentiment. Twenty percent of students add some kind of varsity sport to their already full academic schedules. To satisfy the interest its students have in sports, MIT has recently refurbished existing practice fields and completed the Zesiger Center, an unparalleled training facility. In addition, MIT has made a commitment to elevate the women’s varsity crew team to Division I status in order to maintain its level of competition after an internal shift within NCAA women’s rowing.

It’s the kind of commitment to sports that one might not expect from a school devoted to technology. For some, the mention of “MIT” and “sports” drums up images of geeks making plays with unreliable results; to the dismay of Candace Royer, director of MIT athletics, an article last fall in the Boston Globe played up such stereotypes. But MIT boasts 41 varsity sports, more than almost any other college in the country, and its varsity student-athletes have been recognized as standouts in MIT’s individual playing conferences and on a national level. The students, coaches, and school administrators alike know that MIT’s sports program succeeds because of exactly those qualities outsiders gently mock: intensely focused, hard-working students make intensely focused, hard-working athletes. For those who participate in sports, there is little distinction between what it means to win in class and win on the court. The challenge, though, is to find the time to do both, and for the coach, to assemble a killer team at a college that does not hold any admissions spots open for athletes.

Making Time for Play

At a school that fosters groundbreaking research and regularly produces Nobel Prizewinning scientists, the “stars” on campus are often those who start up new companies or invent new technologies-not necessarily the athletes. “At MIT, everybody is doing something. So if you play a sport, you’re not special,” says senior football player Phil Deutsch ‘04. “If you’re the star basketball player, it’s not a big deal. There are lots of activities, a lot of sports, and a lot of people doing them all.”

But while MIT athletes may not stand out among their classmates, they admittedly stand out amid their peers on rival teams: they carry their homework with them wherever they go. “The other teams laugh at us when we’re sitting on the bleachers at tournaments and are the only ones with our homework out in between matches,” says sophomore volleyball player Austin Zimmerman. But it is difficult for students to balance their homework with a demanding practice and game schedule.

To reduce potential conflicts between classroom time and court time, the university sets aside two hours a day, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., for “cocurricular” activities: no classes meet during this period. Students’ schedules may be so full that they literally run from a lab that ends at 5:00 to the locker room or the pool, the playing field or the court. After a hard practice, they shower, eat, and then finally settle down to study around 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. It can be grueling.

“I’m always tired,” admits Deutsch, a running back for MIT’s varsity football team. “During the season I’m up until 2:00 or 2:30 a.m.” But sports eventually do force students to close their books. “If you don’t sleep, you can’t play well,” says Zimmerman, “and if you’re part of a team, you don’t want to let the team down.”

Making time for practice is one thing, but attending every game-especially away games-is another. Zimmerman says her coach will sometimes proctor exams on the bus coming back from an away game. And students are occasionally permitted to drive themselves to games if academics encroach. Nick Nestle ‘04, two-time captain of the men’s soccer team and first-team All-American, received such permission when a game fell on the same day as an evening exam. Instead of riding the bus, he drove to the game so he could zip back afterwards to take his test.

Accommodating the rigors of an MIT education requires flexibility and understanding on the part of the coaches. Carol Matsuzaki ‘95 went from an MIT tennis team walk-on to its captain and is now the women’s varsity tennis team’s head coach. She understands the pressure her students face to do their best in the classroom and on the court.

“Schoolwork, of course, comes first,” Matsuzaki says. “If you miss a whole practice because you were in biology lab, and the experiment didn’t work, I understand. I’ve been in labs where you just drop something or you have to incubate it again. It’s hard.”

But the students’ desire to try to do both impresses the coaches and only increases their loyalty to MIT. “In a way it’s easy to coach these kids because they know that doing your best is a thing that works-that’s what got them here,” Matsuzaki explains. “I don’t have to convince them. I just have to remind them once in a while because they’re tired and sleepy.”

“I would coach no one else,” says men’s gymnastics coach Noah Riskin. “I was a Division I athlete at Ohio State University. There is a tremendous amount of pressure to win, and any academic pursuit I had had to fit around my training.” Now, at MIT, instead of coaching students who are solely focused on athletics, Riskin finds himself reveling in van rides where the conversations are about engineering, philosophy, and nanotechnology.

Riskin’s athletes have even found ways to connect sports and the classroom. This year an experimental freshman physics course is using a high-speed camera to analyze movement. Labs are sometimes held in the gym, where Riskin’s gymnasts perform flips and leaps whose physics the camera helps explain.

Building the Team

According to Marilee Jones, dean of admissions, more and more students enter MIT having played varsity sports in high school. A decade ago, fewer than 30 percent did, but by 2003, that number had jumped to 56 percent. What MIT does not do is recruit athletes. While MIT coaches can take note of athletes interested in their sports, talk to them, and invite them to visit campus, they are not given any admissions “slots” to fill. “Everyone we admit has the SAT scores and high-school grades to do well at MIT,” says Jones. “We do not admit anyone-no matter who they are-with lower scores or grades because they would be value-added’ in some way, as many other schools might do.”

“That being said,” Jones continues, “we like athletes very much because they generally have already developed the characteristics required of successful MIT students: discipline, focus, goal-setting, resilience, tenacity, humor, leadership.”

Because MIT does not recruit athletes, coaches have to build their teams from the students who show up-and do it while maintaining the unequivocal line that academics come first. “You need to be a coach who is interested in being a teacher,” says John Benedick, assistant director of athletics. “Our coaches are not simply able, through recruiting, to build a program and then guide it. We really have to take what we receive and build a cohesive, effective intercollegiate team.” But, he’s quick to add, “MIT athletes are highly competitive in nature because they’re highly competitive in the classroom. So when they come on the athletic field, they are equally as competitive. And that competitive nature can make up at least a little bit for talent.”

With only a two-hour practice window every day-and with students regularly late or even absent from practice due to class demands-it would seem that MIT coaches would have to give up their dreams of coaching championship teams. But in the last 10 years, MIT has sent nine teams to NCAA national championship competitions.

Conference Competition

For some reason, the prowess of MIT’s student-athletes is not common knowledge, even in the Boston area. Last September 15, Royer opened the Sunday Boston Globe with high expectations. She and Benedick had chatted openly with a Globe reporter about their hopes that MIT’s intercollegiate sports would start to develop a higher profile in the public eye. The article, however, suggested that to do so, MIT was prepared to take drastic measures. In addition to quoting sports administrators at other universities repeating the phrase “MIT has sports?”, the article implied that to attract and recruit better athletes, MIT was hoping to elevate its varsity sports programs from Division III to Division I, where it’s legal to recruit athletes and provide scholarships. This inaccuracy stirred up a brouhaha on campus. Dean of students Larry Benedict went so far as to write a column in the Tech, the student newspaper, refuting the Globe’s claim.

This was an important point to drive home: MIT is a member of the Division III New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (Newmac), whose member schools share the same values-that athletes participate because they love their sports and not because they are being paid, via scholarships, to play. Indeed, Division III regulations forbid granting scholarships to athletes.

The decision to elevate women’s rowing to Division I status, then, prompted not only students but also some of MIT’s fellow Division III schools to ask what that meant for the future of MIT sports. Would MIT start recruiting high-school athletes and giving them scholarships? Was this a prelude to elevating the whole varsity program to Division I?

The simple answer is no (see “Commitment to Crew,” MIT News, September 2001). The decision to make women’s crew a Division I sport was the result of changes made by the NCAA. Until 2000, rowing was an open-division sport, meaning that all schools with women’s crew teams competed against each other. When the NCAA created federated championships for rowing, MIT’s women’s rowing program had to choose where it wanted to compete. If it chose Division III in accordance with the rest of MIT’s sports teams, it meant adopting practice and competition restrictions that would curtail its ability to compete as a nationally recognized team. Complicating the issue, the men’s crew team continues to compete in an open national division with practice and competition schedules that match the Division I rules for women’s teams. Because Division III schools can elevate up to two sports to Division I status without jeopardizing their standing, Royer decided to move the women’s team to Division I.

The Globe’s September story concluded that because of the decision, MIT could heavily recruit elite high-school rowers. But Royer emphatically points out that Division III rules-which the school’s athletic program adheres to-prohibit giving scholarships to athletes in any sport that is elevated to Division I. Nor will MIT compromise its admissions standards to land top rowers.

Although other MIT teams compete in open national divisions-sailing, skiing, men’s squash, fencing, pistol and rifle, and men’s and women’s gymnastics-the majority of intercollegiate teams compete at the Division III level. Benedick and Royer are very happy about the balance they have found in the Newmac conference. A collection of schools that seem to have little in common besides their geographic proximity-Babson, Clark, Coast Guard, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Springfield, Wellesley, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Wheaton-the conference does embrace MIT’s philosophy that a varsity sports program benefits the students and not the reputation of the school.

Other conference members do leave admissions slots open for athletes, which puts MIT at a slight athletic disadvantage, but it makes the athletes even more determined to win conference titles. This fall they were particularly successful. Sophomore Evan Tindell claimed the Institute’s first national championship in men’s tennis. Junior Ben Schmeckpeper won the regional cross-country championship. Nestle led the men’s soccer team to a 17-3-1 record, the best record in its history, assuring it a bid to the NCAA Tournament. He was also named the conference player of the year and first-team All-American, the first in Institute history. Soccer coach Walter Alessi was named Newmac Coach of the Year for the second time in a row, and Alex Morgan ‘07 was named Newmac soccer rookie of the year. The women’s cross-country team won the conference title, and 30 students earned all-conference honors.

James Kramer, MIT’s young, energetic director of sports information, wants to highlight these accomplishments. To that end, he has revamped the department’s Web site with colorful action shots and sports-score updates. Glossy programs with team stats and rosters are now handed out at football games instead of single-page flyers.

“It’s about advertising,” says Royer. “The students who are already here deserve to have their athletic prowess be a part of what they’re proud of. And we want to help prospective students understand that if they’re coming to MIT for the best possible education they can get, they can also play their sports.”

And for now, those who play at MIT are mostly still playing for love of the game. “Our crowds are family members and friends,” says Deutsch. “We don’t play for a fan base. There are maybe 200, 300 people at the game, but I don’t really care. I don’t play for the crowd. We play for each other.”

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